The Central Gift of Pentecost
Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21 (5/15/16)
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… Of all the sins of mankind, one of the most insidious of all is pride. It is pretty amazing what some people will choose to have pride in. Indeed there are very healthy things in which to have pride. As Christians it is good to have pride in our faith and confession, even our church family. As citizens of this great land we rightly have pride in our nation and in standing for what is good and right. We can also have a healthy sense of personal pride in doing our best.
But then there is the bad side, the unhealthy side of pride. There is a great danger for the person who has a sinful pride, a boastful pride, the kind of pride which puffs up a man and causes him to look down his nose at his neighbor, saying, “I am much better than you!” In fact, all of the healthy sources and expressions of pride that I just mentioned can easily be turned into sinful arrogance.
There is a religious arrogance like the Pharisee praying in the temple, “Lord, I thank You that I am not like that man over there…” (Luke 18:11). There is the nationalistic arrogance like Hitler, and there are those who are personally arrogant, those who know and believe in their own small minds that they are better than everyone else.
The people in today’s Old Testament reading had a sinful pride; they had a sinful pride in their unity. They were one people and one language, and that made them arrogant. They thought they could do anything, and so they set out on a quest for power and fame. They said, “Come, let us make bricks…Let us build ourselves a city and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves…” They were certain that nothing could stand in their way.
But how very wrong they were, and God would have something to say about it. Verse 5: But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower…And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language…Come, let Us go down and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.
And so we see where arrogance leads. First, the people’s arrogance would have destroyed them. God saw that they could indeed successfully build their tower reaching up into heaven, but at what cost? How many lives would be lost in the process? The people could not possibly have known the danger of death and destruction that awaited them. But God knew. And God intervened. And God literally stood in their way for their own good.
Another fruit of their arrogance was that they suffered the very thing they feared most. What was one of the reasons for making a name for themselves? “Lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” And yet that ended up being one of the results of their actions! “So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.”
When God intervened He knew He had to divide the people, for together they would certainly destroy themselves. They simply had to be separated, so God scattered them across the face of the earth, just as they had feared.
But that wasn’t enough. Distances could be crossed. Conceivably the people could find one another again and possibly rejoin their effort to build the tower. So God confused their one language into many. God truly made different peoples from this one people by confusing their language and spreading them across the whole earth. It was the fruit of their arrogance. What they had feared most and tried to avoid by building the tower was the very thing that came upon them because they tried to build the tower. They had to be cut down before they did themselves in.
By the time of the New Testament things were quite different. But one thing was not different: the arrogance of sinful mankind. Now, though, there was no arrogance in unity; in fact, there was arrogance in diversity. Instead of taking pride in their unity, they took pride in their differences. There were many nations and many languages.
Racism and prejudice prevailed then, even as it does today. People all over the world today have such a ridiculous pride and arrogance in their own kind that even the slightest nuance of difference is cause for hatred and cruelty. One obvious example is the Middle East; the troubles going on there today have been going on since the days of the New Testament – and before.
On the Day of Pentecost, the Lord determined to intervene again, as He had done so many times before. But this time, rather than dividing the people, He brought them together. Suddenly, in the midst of an international celebration with people gathered in Jerusalem from all over the known world, the disciples got up and began preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ in languages they had never learned. People who had never before heard the Gospel were now hearing it in their own native language. And the end result was that three thousand people were brought to faith in Christ that very day, thereby unifying them in the Spirit and granting them eternal life.
Sadly there is now, and has been for some time, a new version of this arrogant pride infecting the church in our day. This pride is supposedly based on the events celebrated today, the Day of Pentecost. This form of religious arrogance insists that there are levels of spirituality which go beyond salvation by grace through faith. It asserts that the events of that very first Pentecost Day long ago must be repeated again in the life of every Christian, and that each and every Christian come into the “full Gospel” of Jesus Christ. It insists that unless one experiences what is called a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” that person is not fully Christian. It insists that unless you “speak in tongues” as defined by certain groups, then you do not have the gift of the Holy Spirit.
But let us remember that Holy Scripture teaches one baptism, not two, as St. Paul writes in Ephesians 4: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism…” Holy Scripture also teaches that the Holy Spirit comes to a person through that one baptism, as we read in Acts 2: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is supported further in Titus 3:5-7: “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and the renewal by the Holy Spirit whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ, our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
We dare not arrogate to ourselves so-called “Charismatic gifts” and claim that those who do are somehow above other Christians. We do not insist that these “gifts of the Holy Spirit” are for the church today. Although Scripture speaks of many gifts of the Spirit, and even if the gift of tongues operates any longer, it certainly is not for all Christians in all places or times. To insist that it is for all Christians and for all times is to go contrary to Scripture.
Contrary to what the Bible clearly states, the gift of tongues is not and never has been the central blessing of the Day of Pentecost. The greatest gift that Day was not that some two hundred people spoke in languages they had never leaned. The greatest gift that first Pentecost Day was that three thousand people came to faith in Jesus Christ! Three thousand people came to believe in Jesus Christ and to the knowledge that their sins were forgiven in Him alone.
And how did that happen? It happened the same way it always happens: by the work of the Holy Spirit through the preached Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Those who spoke “the wonderful works of God” were preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the message that, even though sinful mankind cannot save himself or do anything to please God, God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself.
And that reconciliation came when Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, took upon Himself all our sins in His suffering, crucifixion, and death, and freed us from everlasting death and destruction, having overcome death and the grave by rising from the dead on that very first Easter morning.
We confess today what the church has always confessed – that we cannot, by our own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him; but it is the Holy Spirit who has called me by the Gospel! It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that saves and brings forgiveness. And that is what we celebrate this Pentecost Day, 2016 along with our new communicants Jason and Gabriel.
The Lord Jesus has suffered, died, and risen for your forgiveness, for your strength, and for your eternal joy and gladness. And now He comes to you in His Holy Supper with His very own body and blood to continue to give you His forgiveness and strength for the rest of your life until He brings us all to His eternal glory in heaven.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.